Ten years on: Eyewitnesses describe the aftermath of the first Pakistan drone strike

Nek Mohammed leads a tribal jirga (meeting) in May 2004 (Photo: Reuters/Kamran Wazir)

Ten years ago today, the first CIA drone strike hit Pakistan, starting a bombing campaign that would span two US presidencies and three Pakistani administrations.

On the evening of June 17 2004, a drone targeted Nek Mohammed, a senior Taliban figure. But it also killed five other people – two of whom were children. While Nek Mohammed received detailed obituaries in major Pakistani newspapers, the children were not even identified by name. And 10 years after their deaths, details of what happened that evening are only just starting to emerge.

Last year, during a research trip to Pakistan for the Naming the Dead project, the Bureau met locals who witnessed the strike’s aftermath and shared key details that have not been previously reported, providing the untold story of the effects of the first drone strike.

In 2004, Nek Mohammed was in his late 20s. Although young, he was increasingly influential, as the leader of a tribal uprising against the Pakistani government.

‘At the time people never knew that buzzing was a drone. Later, we became used to it. A flash of light came. There was a big blast’

New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti describes Nek Mohammed in his book The Way of the Knife as the ‘undisputed rock star’ of Pakistan’s tribal belt, and writes that he was instrumental in harnessing local resentment of the Pakistani government’s decision to support the US invasion of Afghanistan. He gathered foreign fighters fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan, bringing them together with local tribesmen to launch attacks on the Pakistani government and US bases over the border.

His attacks prompted a Pakistani military invasion of South Waziristan in March 2004, but President Musharraf was forced to make a peace deal with the fighters within weeks after suffering heavier-than-expected losses.

The truce didn’t hold. By May 2004, Mohammed’s men had resumed their attacks on Pakistani government targets and, according to Mazzetti, Pakistani intelligence officials proposed a deal with the US. If they would kill Mohammed, the Pakistani government would allow the US to start flying its drones over the tribal regions of Pakistan – something it had been requesting permission to do for some time in order to hunt al Qaeda members who had fled over the border.

‘Nek Mohammed really pissed off the Pakistanis,’ a former CIA station chief told Mazzetti. ‘They said, “If you guys can find him, go get him.”‘

It was not long before the CIA got their man.

On the evening of June 17 2004, Mohammed was sitting in the courtyard of a home in the village of Kari Kot, South Waziristan, when a drone attacked. The Pakistani military initially claimed credit for the strike. With Mohammed were several other men, including the owner of the home, Sher Zaman, and two boys. Reports at the time stated the boys were 10 and 16 years old.

The Bureau met two men who could remember the strike’s aftermath. Although they had not been briefed in advance about what we would be discussing, their accounts tallied on many details with media reports previously gathered by the Bureau, allowing us to have some confidence in their recollections.

One of the two men was a local journalist who was about 1km away when the strike hit. He rushed to the scene and reported on the attack. He told the Bureau the younger boy was named Mohammed Zaman, and his older brother was called Khan Zaman. Both were students at a school in Wana.

The journalist, whose name we have protected, said that the boys were the sons of Sher Zaman, an Afghani from the Wazir tribe, the son of Akbar Zaman. He was ‘more than 60’ years old, and his two young sons were with his second wife, he added.

He also provided details of another man who died, Shahrukh Khan, from the Zilikhel tribe. He was a local commander for Mohammed, and also worked as a driver, the journalist said. He was killed instantly in the strike.

There’s clear evidence that two children died in that strike. The onus is on the US to explain what happened – and what’s Pakistan doing to seek redress for the family?’
– Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International

The journalist was told when he arrived that at the time of the attack, Nek Mohammed was ‘on the phone roaming around the compound [while] the others were sitting in a group’, the journalist added. When the missile hit, the others were all killed instantly. Nek Mohammed was badly wounded, and was rushed to hospital.

Separately, the Bureau met a man who was then a teenager working as a helper in a medical dispensary a couple of kilometres from Kari Kot when the attack happened.

‘As it was summer we were sitting on the roof of the hospital, because it was so hot,’ he said. He and his colleagues heard a buzzing sound. ‘At the time people never knew that buzzing was a drone. Later, we became used to it. There was some noise then from the east, a flash of light came. There was a big blast.’

Shortly afterwards neighbours brought the bodies of Nek Mohammed and ‘one of his general men’ to the centre. ‘They said we weren’t allowed to get near the body… In the morning we found out it was him,’ the witness said.

The two accounts illustrate some of the ambiguities and conflicts that can occur in eyewitness testimony. The second witness was confident that only Nek Mohammed and the man who was brought with him to hospital died.

‘As far as I know all the government hospitals that were in the area they were closed during the night. This was a small private dispensary that was open,’ he said. ‘I believe if there were no other hospitals open where were the [other] bodies? They must have come to the dispensary.’

He added: ‘I’m from the area. If there’s any deaths or casualties we would know that there were other deaths, but there were no other rumours.’

Yet media reports – and the journalist who originally reported on the strike – agree that multiple others died, including Sher Zaman and his sons. The medical worker’s eyewitness testimony – including the wounds that he described on Nek Mohammed’s body – fits with the description given independently by the journalist.

An Amnesty International report published in October 2013 gave different names for the two boys, identifying them as Irfan Wazir, aged 14, and Zaman Wazir, eight.

Amnesty’s Pakistan researcher Mustafa Qadri told the Bureau: ‘Often people in Waziristan will have multiple names and nicknames: they’ll have religious names, caste names, tribal names and the official name that’s on their ID cards. It’s extremely challenging, and it’s possible that these children are being identified by different names by different sources. It highlights the profound difficulties of trying to confirm details – even just the names of the actual victims.’

He added: ‘This is a 10-year-old case and it’s uncontroversial: even President Musharraf has acknowledged that this was indeed a US drone strike. Despite the confusion over the names, there’s clear evidence that two children died in that strike. The onus is on the US to explain what happened – and what’s Pakistan doing to seek redress for the family? It’s really symbolic that [in] the very first drone strike, we have, yes, a militant killed, but also civilians – and yet after 10 years there’s no justice and no acknowledgement for those civilians.’

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